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As election, Sandy draw near, pressure mounts on disaster chief

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the Hurricane Sandy situation from the press briefing room of the White House in Washing
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the Hurricane Sandy situation from the press briefing room of the White House in Washing

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the U.S. East Coast little more than a week before the presidential election, President Barack Obama's fortunes may in part depend on how well a former volunteer firefighter from Florida does his job.

Craig Fugate, a former paramedic and firefighter who rose to become Florida's top emergency management official, heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is the man Obama is counting on to bring relief quickly to millions of people expected to be hit by monster storm Sandy.

With the presidential election at hand and closely fought, the stakes are high for Obama to avoid an embarrassment like former President George W. Bush's botched reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Much of the pressure is on Fugate, who has earned high marks for his quick and effective response to recent storms. That includes Hurricane Isaac in August, the deadly May 2011 tornadoes that struck Joplin, Missouri, and Hurricane Irene, which lashed the east coast in August 2011.

Fugate, 53, was one of the few people Obama consulted in the White House Situation Room Monday morning for an update on the hurricane's movements and federal response efforts, the White House said.

After the meeting with Fugate and a handful of other officials, Obama delivered a statement from the White House, pleading for patience from the American public but also pledging that his administration will have emergency relief in place - a task that Fugate will have to carry out.

"I'm confident that we're ready, but I think the public needs to prepare for the fact that this is going to take a long time for us to clean up," Obama said.

Obama switched from campaign mode to first-responder-in-chief on Monday, canceling scheduled campaign stops in Florida and Wisconsin and returning to Washington to monitor the storm and the government's response.

Rival Mitt Romney, who is running neck-and-neck with Obama in the polls, also canceled his campaign appearances, "out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy," his campaign said.

BLANKETS, GENERATORS IN PLACE

The president has declared emergencies in at least eight eastern states and the District of Columbia.

During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Fugate, who wears a goatee and glasses and speaks with a Florida drawl, rattled off an extensive list of the administration's preparations, including getting bottled water, meals, blankets and generators in place. He said the disaster relief fund held $3.6 billion.

"As the storm's coming ashore, we'll be rapidly moving into response operations, as soon as weather conditions permit," he said.

The aggressive response, and the image of a fully engaged commander-in-chief, gives Obama yet another chance to contrast his efforts with the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Former President Bush's FEMA director Michael Brown, a lawyer who owed his job to political connections, resigned shortly after it became clear the government's reaction to the devastating storm was inadequate and poorly planned.

Bush's remark, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," made even as New Orleans residents fled to higher ground to avoid onrushing waters, became a catch-phrase that tarred the Bush presidency with an image of cronyism and still evokes bitter memories.

Fugate told reporters this summer that Katrina taught officials to be in place before the storms hit. Local officials have expressed gratitude to him for help with such delicate problems as how to search for remains.

In the thick of a close election, Obama's turn to crisis management may offer him a chance to rise above the fray of campaigning, a notion he tried to drive home at the briefing on Monday.

"The election will take care of itself next week," he said. "Right now, our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search-and-rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get food, the water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency, and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Cynthia Osterman)

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